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Wolf v. City of Stockton

March 4, 2010

SONYA WOLF; ROGER CRAIG IN HIS CAPACITY AS GUARDIAN AD LITEM FOR THE MINOR NICHOLAS H., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF STOCKTON; OFFICER DARREN SANDOVAL, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS POLICE OFFICER FOR THE CITY OF STOCKTON, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Frank C. Damrell, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, or alternatively, partial summary judgment in this action brought by plaintiff Sonya Wolf ("Wolf") on behalf of herself and her minor son, Nicholas H. ("Nicholas"), represented by Roger Craig in his capacity as Guardian ad Litem for Nicholas (collectively, "plaintiffs"). By this action, plaintiffs allege various civil rights violations, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"), against defendants City of Stockton (the "City"), Officer Darren Sandoval ("Sandoval") and Officer Eric Azarvand ("Azarvand") (collectively, "defendants") arising from the officers' response to and investigation of a report of child neglect. Officers responded to a report, by Nicholas' father, that Nicholas was living with his mother in his mother's van. Plaintiffs allege the officers acted without legal justification in detaining Wolf, searching Wolf's van*fn1 and interviewing Nicholas. Plaintiffs sue the City under Monell v. Department of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978) which permits a municipality to be held liable for damages under Section 1983 where the municipality itself causes the constitutional deprivation.

Defendants move for summary judgment, arguing (1) plaintiffs have no evidence of any constitutional violations by the defendant officers because the officers' conduct was justified under emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement; (2) even if a constitutional violation could be established, the officers are entitled to qualified immunity because they did not act contrary to any clearly established law permitting child welfare checks under these circumstances; and (3) plaintiffs have no evidence of any formal governmental policy or longstanding practice or custom of the City which violates plaintiffs' constitutional rights.

In the amended complaint, plaintiffs alleged the officers deprived them of (1) their right to liberty without due process of law; (2) their right to be free from unreasonable interference with a parent-child relationship; (3) the right to procedural due process; (4) the right to be free from arbitrary intrusions on plaintiffs' physical and emotional well-being; and (6) the right to be free from the use of excessive force. (Am. Compl., filed July 19, 2009 [Docket #15].) However, in opposing defendants' motion, brought against all of said claims, as well as in cross-moving for summary judgment, plaintiffs argue only that the officers' actions violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unlawful search or seizure. (Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Pls.' MSJ and in Opp'n to Defs.' MSJ, filed Jan. 19, 2010 [Docket #27].) As such, the court finds based on plaintiffs' arguments that they have abandoned their other claims for relief pled in the amended complaint, including alleged violations of their substantive and procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and their excessive force claim under the Eighth Amendment. The court thus considers herein only whether the officers violated plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment rights.

The court heard oral argument on the motions on February 26, 2010. By this order, it now renders its decision, holding that there is no material issue of fact as to whether defendants violated plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment rights, and thus, summary judgment is properly granted in defendants' favor. Because the court finds that plaintiffs' constitutional rights were not violated, it need not consider whether the individual defendants would otherwise be entitled to qualified immunity or whether plaintiffs could sustain a Monell claim against the City.

BACKGROUND*fn2

At around 9:00 p.m. on September 8, 2006, Wolf parked her van in a Denny's parking lot at 2670 West March Lane in Stockton, California. (UF #1.) Wolf testified she stopped at Denny's to take care of her dogs. (UF #2.)

On September 8, Officers Sandoval and Azarvand were partners in the same patrol car. (UF #3.) They were dispatched to the Denny's on March Lane because they received a report that a father had telephoned the police expressing concern over the welfare of his child, who the father said had been living in a van with his mother in the Denny's parking lot. (UF #s 4, 6; RDF #58.)*fn3 The father asked that police check on the welfare of his child. (Id.) The officers received a description of the vehicle as a white van with something about "flying dogs" on the outside of the van. (UF #5.)

The officers found a van matching the description in the back of the Denny's parking lot. (UF #7.) To determine whether anyone was in the van, Officer Azarvand walked around the van knocking on parts of the van with his hand. (UF #8.) There was no response. (Id.) Wolf testified she heard the banging, saw it was the police, but did not respond because she was hoping they would go away. (Green Decl., filed Nov. 9, 2009, Ex. D, 31:8-25-32:1-7 [Docket #19-4].)

Officer Azarvand checked the doors and found the passenger door unlocked. He opened the door and asked Wolf to step out of the van; she promptly complied so that a dog would not jump out of the van. (UF # 9, 10.) The officers told Wolf they were there because they received a report of a child living in the van. (UF #11; RDF #35.) They asked Wolf if she had a child in the van, and she responded, yes. (UF #12.) The officers told Wolf they needed to check if the child was okay. (RDF #36.) The officers observed four dogs in the van; two in cages and two outside of cages. (UF #14.)

Wolf used her cell phone to make a call. (RDF #37.) She then tried to get to the front door of the van, pushing Azarvand twice in an attempt to close the door, but Azarvand stood in the way. (UF #13; RDF #s 38, 67.) Azarvand told Wolf that the officers were "in charge now." (RDF #39.) Wolf began screaming at Nicholas, telling him to close the van doors, lock them and not let the officers inside the van. (UF #15.) The officers then handcuffed Wolf and placed her in their patrol car. (UF #16; RDF #s 40, 68.)*fn4

Officer Azarvand took Wolf's van keys*fn5 and opened the back van doors to speak with the child, Nicholas. (UF #17.)

Nicholas, who was seven at the time, was wearing pull-up diapers. (UF #19.) Azarvand observed Nicholas sitting on a little, thin mattress with a pillow and blanket, and he was concerned about him for sanitary and safety reasons. (RDF #60.)*fn6 The officers observed a pizza box in the back of the van. (UF #26).

Officer Azarvand began interviewing Nicholas. (UF #20.) Wolf objected to the interview, telling the officers they needed a warrant to search the van and to interview Nicholas. (RDF #s 53-55.) Wolf also told Azarvand that Nicholas' father makes false police reports about her. (RDF #61.) While Nicholas was being interviewed by Azarvand, Nicholas was able to ...


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